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Have Arsenal Curbed Folarin Balogun’s Progression Path?

By Rob Worthington (Deputy Editor)

In terms of outgoing business, Arsenal underwhelmed during the Summer transfer window. At the beginning of the transfer period, many believed the north London outfit would be able to bring in north of £100 million through player sales. However, come the end of the window, Joe Willock was the only player to have left the club on a permanent basis.

There were a plethora of mitigating factors which contributed to the poor performance in this regard. A lack of suitors and a deflated COVID market made player sales particularly challenging. That said, when you see the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea selling players of relative inexperience such as Dan James and Marc Guehi for sizeable sums, you do begin to scratch your head.

This has left Mikel Arteta with a bloated squad on his hands, best evidenced by the situation up front. Arsenal’s Spanish manager has five strikers competing for a single starting spot in his system. This issue is exacerbated by the fact Arteta can’t even offer his fringe players Europa League football this season.

As such, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alex Lacazette and Gabriel Martinelli chosen as the three strikers for Saturday’s matchday squad, Eddie Nketiah and Flo Balogun were sent to play for the U23s. This is particularly concerning for Nketiah as an established senior striker, but arguably more so from a fan’s perspective regarding Balogun after his promotion to the first team this season.

One would imagine the plan was for Balogun to assume Nketiah’s role in the squad this term. Arsenal were open to selling Nketiah this Summer, and even reportedly accepted a bid from Crystal Palace for the Englishman before talks broke down between the player and the south London club. That would’ve left Balogun as the third-choice striker option alongside Martinelli leaving him with guaranteed minutes in cup competitions and off the bench.

Unfortunately, with Nketiah sticking around, Balogun’s current progression trajectory is surely going to plateau. It is comparable to the situation of Reiss Nelson last season who fell further and further down the pecking order due to the signing of recently departed Willian and of course Emile Smith Rowe’s emergence. This leaves Arsenal with no other option but to send these players back to the U23 level, a level these players are supposed to have outgrown.

Caveated by the benefit of hindsight, it appears rather strange that Arsenal didn’t push to loan out Balogun as Nketiah’s stay became increasingly more likely. Like Nketiah, Balogun has stamped his authority over PL2. It’s a mission he has already completed. He’s a player who needs to get used to playing against men if he wants to appear as a viable option for Mikel Arteta. Just like for William Saliba during the first half of the 20/21 season, the period between now and Christmas will likely prove to be a wasted period in Flo Balogun’s career. That’s poor management.

Arsenal did a lot right during the Summer transfer window. They had a clear and effective strategy concerning incomings. They cashed in on Joe Willock when his market value was arguably as high as it’ll ever be. Furthermore, new homes were found for numerous fringe players. However, a black mark must be placed next to Edu and Arteta due to their treatment of the striker situation.

I’d love to be proved wrong. I’d love to see Balogun break into first-team selection contention despite all the competition. After all, he did bag a brace against a strong Manchester United U23 outfit at the weekend. Nonetheless, it’s very hard to see where those opportunities will arise right now.

The technical staff did wonderfully well to tie Balogun down to a new deal when it appeared his departure was inevitable as his contract neared its expiration a few months ago. Let’s hope for all involved that the young striker isn’t left ruing his decision to extend his contract with Arsenal.

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